St. George debate: Will creating a city help the schools break away?

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Supporters of forming the new city of St. George launched the effort last summer arguing it would serve as the catalyst to finally allow residents of the area to break away from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and form their own school district.

But whether a new city would make forming a new St. George school district easier is far from clear.

The key unanswered question is, how does it help supporters gain, or avoid the need for, a two-thirds majority in both the Louisiana Senate, and even more difficult, the Louisiana House? That’s the threshold for calling a statewide referendum to amend the state Constitution and add the St. George school district to that document. Baker, Central and Zachary all went that route to gain their independence from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

If a two-thirds majority vote is still necessary, voters could successfully create a city of St. George and yet fail to break the legislative impasse that has thus far stymied efforts to form an independent school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

St. George supporters aren’t showing their cards as yet.

“There are several options that will be available upon passage of the St. George initiative,” Lionel Rainey III, spokesman for the Committee to Incorporate the City of St. George, said Friday. “We will be happy to discuss those options at the appropriate time. For now, our primary focus is on obtaining the required signatures to get this on a ballot in 2014.”

In 2012, breakaway school district supporters earned 66 out of 70 votes needed in the House. This summer, they never tried, but enabling legislation garnered only 58 votes.

“Every time they present this for a vote, people are leaving their side,” said state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, a staunch opponent of the St. George effort whose district abuts the area.

James acknowledged that forming a city of St. George would deal with one of the objections raised to a breakaway school district, that the southeast portion of Baton Rouge is not connected with a city as Baker, Central and Zachary were when those school districts were created. Indeed, residents of Central in 2006 were finally able, on the third try, to gain a two-thirds majority in the Legislature for an independent school district the year after they successfully incorporated and formed a city.

James, however, is doubtful a city of St. George would produce the same effect. Forming a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge still poses other, bigger problems — potentially diverting millions of dollars from the parish school system, straining current educational programs and displacing students — that will continue to make it difficult for supporters to collect the necessary 70 votes in the House, he said.

“It might help them pick up another two or three votes, but it will also help us pick two or three votes,” James predicts.

Woody Jenkins, a former state representative, a St. George supporter and friend of many of the leaders of the effort, agreed that just creating a city of St. George is unlikely to add enough support from lawmakers to achieve a two-thirds majority.

“My sense is not enough has changed in the Legislature,” said Jenkins, who in September launched an online publication to follow the new city called the St. George Leader.

Jenkins, however, said he thinks only a simple majority, not a two-thirds majority, is needed.

To justify that contention, he offers what he admits is a novel legal argument, one yet to be attempted or defended in court.

“There are actually two types of school boards set forth under the law: parish school boards and city school boards,” explained Jenkins, who has a law degree but says he’s never practiced law. “We actually only have parish school systems in this state because cities have not chosen to start schools.”

While they are called city school districts, Baker, Bogalusa and Monroe are not run by the cities they share their names with, Jenkins said.

So, if voters create a city of St. George, the new St. George city council could, by ordinance, create a St. George school district. Then the council could petition the Legislature to amend Act 295. That act, signed into law in June, creates on paper a new Southeast Baton Rouge school district. Legislators would be asked to update the act so the St. George school boundaries mirror those announced on Dec. 9, a move that would require only a simple majority, he said.

Jenkins’ interpretation is at odds with how the Legislature has treated this issue in the past.

Jenkins said he’s not sure if St. George supporters are using a similar legal rationale, but they know what he’s thinking.

“I certainly have discussed it with Norman Browning and (state Sen.) Bodi White,” Jenkins said.

Past statements by St. George leaders hint at a similar rationale.

“Is it easier to get 20,000 signatures on a petition or is it easier to get 70 votes in the House?” Browning, one of the leaders of the St. George effort, asked an audience in June at Woodlawn Baptist Church. “I’ll reserve my comment.”

Act 295, however, states it “shall take effect and become operative” only after the Louisiana Constitution is amended to grant the new Southeast Baton Rouge district certain taxing powers and access to the Minimum Foundation Program, the state’s per pupil funding formula.

Even if that language were deleted, though, the constitution isn’t so easily sidestepped.

Article 8, Section 13 of that document grants taxing authority and automatic access to the MFP to the state’s 64 parishes as well as “city school systems.”

Later, the section specifies that five “municipal and other school systems” — Baker, Central and Zachary, as well as municipal districts in Bogalusa and Monroe — “and no others” have this authority. These five districts are “regarded and treated as parishes and shall have the authority granted parishes,” the article states.

Here is where Jenkins is entering new legal ground. He said these five school districts are not, as far as the law goes, city school systems at all. Rather, he argues, they have been promoted to level of the 64 parish school systems.

The “city school systems” that gain access to the MFP are undefined, Jenkins argues, leaving the door open for Louisiana cities to form their own school districts by ordinance.

“I know that it’s never been done. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done,” he said.

As a practical and political matter, Jenkins said, cities likely still need to get approval from the Legislature to assume control of school buildings and transfer local taxing authority to the new city school systems. That, however, would require only a simple majority.

Jenkins said he came to his current interpretation of the law only in the last year or so. He acknowledged the legislation to create the city of Baker school district, which he co-authored in 1995, did not use this approach.

“I guess had the city of Baker come to us and said we want to come and operate a school system, we would have looked it that way,” he said.

Baton Rouge attorney Charlie Patin said he’s not aware of anyone who reads the state Constitution the way Jenkins does. Patin is a partner with Kean Miller law firm who has represented school districts through the years, including East Baton Rouge Parish. He said the non-parish school districts listed in Article 8, Section 13 are listed by name on purpose.

“That list is a finite list,” he said.

Patin said the constitution, which was updated in 1974, was written to make sure that school districts in the cities of Bogalusa and Monroe, which had been operating for decades, were grandfathered in. Lawmakers then didn’t contemplate the idea of more school districts, he said, meaning supporters of new districts such as St. George are required to change the constitution to create theirs.